Did you know about half of all languages are tonal? This means the same word, said with two different tones, means two different things. Thai and Vietnamese are two of these tonal languages.
The two countries are close to each other, both in Southeast Asia. Despite this, the languages are somewhat different from one another.
So, is Thai harder or easier than Vietnamese? Vietnamese is an easier language to learn. Here’s why.
The Vietnamese and Thai alphabets have nothing in common. But, as it is based on the Latin alphabet, the Vietnamese alphabet looks more familiar to English speakers.
The Vietnamese alphabet has 29 letters—12 vowels and 17 consonants. Most of the letters are the same as in English. They make slightly different sounds, though.
In addition, it has letters that don’t exist in the Latin alphabet. For instance, the letter đ in Vietnamese.
The Thai alphabet contains a total of 72 characters—44 consonants and 28 vowels. This is over twice the number of letters in Vietnamese.
Some characters look similar and have tiny differences. So it takes a lot of rote memorization and flashcards.
Vietnamese and Thai are both written and read left to right. This part comes naturally to English speakers.
There is one key difference between reading Vietnamese and reading Thai, though. Let’s look at both below.
The Vietnamese sentence is difficult to read. But, you would be close by using the sounds in English.
Thai, on the other hand, can't be read at all. The only way to read the Thai sentence is to have a working knowledge of its alphabet already.
Many Vietnamese letters are similar to their English counterpart, with a slight adjustment to the pronunciation.
There are 12 vowels in Vietnamese. Here are their different sounds.
There is only one consonant that doesn’t exist in English, đ. It makes the d sound we are used to in English.
Learning to read Vietnamese is not difficult for beginners. The unfamiliar vowels take extra practice. The use of the Latin alphabet allows beginners to start reading in a short time.
Thai takes longer. It is a whole new alphabet to learn. And none of the characters look like English letters.
Common Thai Consonants
Common Thai Vowels
The character, อ, is a placeholder. Either it would stay like this, and the speaker would only pronounce the vowel sound. Or it would be replaced with another consonant.
Another thing to know is the placement of vowels. You find them all around the consonants. Above, below, before, and after the consonants. Look at these examples. อ is a placeholder.
Word: ปี (bpee)
Vowel: อี (ee — long)
Word: งู (ngoo)
Vowel: อู (oo — long)
Word: เวลา (weehh-laa)
Vowel: เอ (eehh — long)
Word: มา (maa)
Vowel: อา (aa — long)
Before and after
Word: เกาะ (gawh)
Vowels: เอาะ (awh — short)
Before, after, and above
Word: เรียน (rian)
Vowels: เอีย (ia — long)
This provides a significant barrier to reading as beginners adjust.
One thing is essential to mention. Northern and Southern Thai are different from each other. So different that people from the north and south have difficulty understanding each other.
However, Central Thai is the official language. And people from the north and south can understand Central Thai.
Northern Thai has its own writing system, too.
Central Thai: ยาก (yaak)
Northern Thai: ᨿᩣ᩠ᨠ (ngak)
Central Thai: พูด (pood)
Northern Thai: ᩋᩪ᩶ (oo)
Central Thai: ไม่ (mai)
Northern Thai: ᨷᩴ᩵ (boh)
This won’t impact a student’s learning. But a student may encounter it when traveling through Northern Thailand.
Vietnamese makes it easy to read the tonal system. In Thai, it's going to be more challenging to figure out the tone.
In Vietnamese, there are five tonal markers. These tell precisely the tone to use. It’s as simple as remembering the tone markers.
In Thai, it is more complicated. There are more things to take into factor to get the correct tone.
Let’s look at examples of how Vietnamese and Thai tones are different.
Tone name: ngang
Tone Type: high, flat tone
Example: ma (ghost)
Tone name: huyền
Tone Type: starts low, stays low
Example: mà (which, that)
Tone name: sắc
Tone Type: starts high, goes higher
Example: má (mother; cheek)
Tone name: nặng
Tone Type: short and low tone
Example: mạ (rice seedling)
Tone name: hỏi
Tone Type: tone rises, like asking a question
Example: mả (tomb)
Tone name: ngã
Tone Type: tone rises but is cut short
Example: mã (horse)
Word: จาน (jaan - plate)
Tone Type: Mid-tone
Word: ก่อน (gorn - before)
Tone Type: Low tone
Word: บ้าน (baan - house)
Tone Type: falling
Word: ร้อน (ron - hot)
Tone Type: high
Word: หมา (maa - dog)
Tone type: rising
Thai has tone markers as well. They do not have a simple system to follow, though. Here are the Thai tones and their names.
Three things determine the tone of a word in Thai.
Once we find these, we have one of the five tones in Thai. There are rules to follow to know the tone, but it is beyond the scope of this article.
This chart is a helpful introduction and resource to use.
Thai and Vietnamese grammar is easy for English speakers when starting out. They both follow the same structure as English.
All three languages follow a subject + verb + object sentence structure.
Where Thai and Vietnamese are different from English is tenses. English has 12 tenses in total. Thai and Vietnamese have none. This is one less thing for learners to worry about when learning the languages.
Instead of tenses, both languages show the time something was done using time words. These words are placed after the verb, usually to show the time of an action.
Let’s look at examples.
To show a continuous action
Words in both languages share similar patterns. For example, Thai uses นี้ (nee) when talking about this one.
ตอนนี้ (dtorn nee) — now
Literal translation: at this (moment)
วันนี้ (wan nee) — today
Literal translation: day this
เดือนนี้ (duean nee) — this month
Literal translation: month this
Vietnamese does the same with the word nay.
hôm nay (hom nai) — today
Literal translation: day this
tháng này (tang nai) — this month
Literal translation: month this
Năm nay (nam nai) — this year
Literal translation: year this
Questions in Vietnamese and Thai have similarities. For example, Thai places question words at the end of the sentence. The same applies to Vietnamese.
Let’s look at an example. Here is how we can ask how much something costs.
Vietnamese: Chi phí bao nhiêu?
Transliteration: Chi fee bao niew
Literal translation: Expense how much?
Question word: bao nhiêu (how much/many)
Transliteration: raakaa tao rai ka? (Female speaker)
Literal translation: Price how much?
Question word: เท่าไหร่ (how much — price)
Both of the question words are at the end of the sentences. In Vietnamese, the question word can go at the beginning, too.
Vietnamese: Tại sao bạn thích đến thăm Việt Nam?
Transliteration: Tai são ban tick duen tham Vietnam?
Literal translation: Why you like visit Vietnam?
Question word: Tại sao (why)
Vietnamese: Khi nào bạn đi Hà Nội?
Transliteration: Nee nao ban dee Hanoi?
Literal translation: When do you go Hanoi?
Question word: Khi nào (when)
Creating negative sentences in both Vietnamese and Thai is easy. It’s as simple as putting ‘no’ in front of the main verb.
In Thai, this word is ไม่. In Vietnamese, it is không.
Vietnamese: Tôi không thích hải sản.
Transliteration: Dtoi kong tick hai saan.
Literal translation: I no like seafood.
Transliteration: Chan mai chob aa-haan ta-lay ka. (Female speaker)
Literal translation: I no like food sea.
This area is beginner-friendly. No need to worry about contractions or the placement of the negative part. Once we find the main verb, we can easily make negative sentences.
Both languages rely on tones for word meaning. This is the most challenging area for beginners.
People say Vietnamese has eight tones. This is because of minor differences in individual tones. Officially, there are six tones.
If a learner is coming from a language with no tones, more practice is vital.
Thai tones are easy to hear once a learner immerses themselves in the language. The tones are distinguishable. So there won’t be an issue confusing them.
Now, let’s look at how the pronunciation of the tones changes the meaning.
This is where foreigners end up looking silly but in a good way!
Meaning: me, I
Word: tào (tao)
Tone: Low to high
Word: เข่า (khao)
Word: เข้า (khao)
Meaning: to enter
Word: เขา (khao)
Each language has its share of similar-sounding words. It’s part of the fun of learning a language. You will look and feel embarrassed, but you learn from it.
And, besides, native speakers are happy you’re trying. The effort is enough for them.
As with every language, it’s going to come down to determination. If a learner puts in the hours, they’ll get a quicker return.
Vietnamese is easier than Thai. The use of the Latin alphabet is easier to learn and start reading.
The pronunciation and grammar are similar and take an equal amount of time to learn. The Thai alphabet has a more significant learning curve and therefore takes longer.
And, during that time, a learner could be advancing in Vietnamese at a faster rate.
PS: You can use our free web application to record your own Thai or Vietnamese phrases.